Supreme Court to Hear Case Determining Corporate Accountability for Human Rights Violations

Tomorrow, the Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum, a casethat will decide whether corporations are liable for human rights violations underthe Alien Tort Statute (ATS).

The plaintiffs, individual victims, and their family members, allege thatRoyal Dutch Petroleum was complicit in the Nigerian government’s killings, torture,and other attacks on opponents of the oil company’s activities in the NigerDelta. The ATS allows victims of human rights violations to sue in U.S. courts.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit has differed fromother appellate courts when it exempted corporations from the reach of the ATS. 

The Supreme Court will also hear arguments in a different case todecide whether the Torture Victim Protection Act permits actions againstcorporations and other defendants that are not persons. The decision of theSupreme Court in these cases will resolve the split in the lower courts andwill determine the future of corporate accountability for human rightsviolations.

PHR has long documented human rights violations, including thosefacilitated by corporations. Our work in Burma, for example, has documentedhuman rights violations including extrajudicial killings, rape, torture, andforced labor.

In a case similar to Kiobel,the ATS was used by plaintiffs to sue Unocal, an oil company allegedlycomplicit in acts of forced labor, rape, and killing related to theconstruction of the company’s pipeline in Burma. The company settled andcompensated plaintiffs.

The ATS remains an essential tool for victims to sue violators of humanrights violations. The US should not let corporations out of their crimes butinstead should press for all those responsible to be held accountable.

A blanket grant of immunity allowing for corporations to commit humanrights violations only emboldens them to continue their abusive practices. TheSupreme Court should reverse the Second Circuit’s decision in Kiobel and ensure that corporations maybe held accountable for egregious human rights violations.

Such a decision would affirm the purpose of the ATS, punishperpetrators of serious crimes, and deter acts of corporate complicity in humanrights violations in the future.


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